French voters headed to the polls on Sunday for the first round of a presidential election that many analysts believe is expected to mark the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s turbulent term in office.
Voters overcame fears of a low turnout in the first hours of the presidential election, beating expectations with a greater than expected participation rate of 28.29 percent at midday.
While that figure was down from 31.21 percent at the same stage in the 2007 race, Sunday’s interim turnout was much higher than the 21.41 percent recorded in 2002 and the second highest in any presidential race since 1981.
In Paris, turnout was even higher than in 2007, at 21.68 percent compared with 20 percent.
In 2007, when right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy beat Socialist Segolene Royal in a passionately fought race, the final turnout was quite high at nearly 74 percent.
Recent opinion polls for these elections pointed to the right-wing incumbent coming second to his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.
The two 57-year-old political veterans will thus face each other head-to-head in a May 6 run-off, which will decide who runs what is commonly regarded as the world’s fifth greatest power for the next five years.
More than 44 million voters are registered but pollsters predict around 25 percent will abstain.
Sarkozy 1st president to lose reelection?
France’s feeble economy could make Sarkozy the country’s first president to lose a fight for re-election in more than 30 years.
In a contest driven as much by a dislike of Sarkozy’s showy style and his failure to bring down unemployment as by policy differences, Sarkozy and Hollande are pegged to beat eight other candidates to go through to a May 6 runoff, where polls give Hollande a double-digit lead.
Hollande promises less drastic spending cuts than Sarkozy and wants higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation, in particular a 75 percent upper tax rate on income above 1 million euros ($1.32 million).
He would become France’s first left-wing president since Francois Mitterand, who beat incumbent Valery Giscard-d’Estaing in 1981.
Sarkozy says he is a safer pair of hands for future economic turmoil but many of the workers and young voters drawn to his 2007 pledge of more pay for more work are deserting him as jobless claims have hit their highest level in 12 years.
Many French people also express a distaste for a president who has come to be seen as flashy following his highly publicisied marriage to supermodel Carla Bruni early in his term, occasional rude outbursts in public and his chumminess with rich executives.
“We have to get rid of Sarkozy,” said Marc Boitel, a trombone player taking part in a street protest ahead of Sunday’s vote. “People just want jobs.”